From Private Circles to Public Circulation

Aldus Manutius & the Emergence of the “Public Sphere” in Renaissance Italy

Alessandra Bordini 

Alessandra Bordini is a researcher at the Canadian Institute for Studies in Publishing and a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Studies at Simon Fraser University. Her primary research areas are the history of the book, the history of publishing, media studies, and the digital humanities. She is particularly interested in data collection and curation for digital special collections, and the history of book production, distribution, and reception in Renaissance Italy. Alessandra holds a Master of Publishing (MPub) from Simon Fraser University and a Master of Arts (MA) in Translation Studies from the University of Siena.

Simon Fraser University

October 01, 2023 

oil painting by Giorgione, Three Philosophers, c.1508–1509. Three sumptuously but very differently dressed phsilosophers: an old bearded man, possibly Greek; a Persian or Arab philosopher; and a sitting young man holding a right-angle triangle, in an outodoor landscape.
Giorgione, Three Philosophers, c. 1508–1509. From the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, via Google Arts & Culture


This paper continues a larger study on the historical and cultural significance of the Aldine Press of Venice (1494–1598) in terms of its groundbreaking influence then and its continued relevance today. The considerations presented here should thus be understood as part of a broader analysis that seeks to identify various points of connection between the editorial and technological achievements introduced by the press’s founder, Aldus Manutius, in the early days of printing and the key developments of our digital age.

Expanding this work further in the direction of open social scholarship, I aim to provide an additional layer of contextualization that will enhance our understanding of the pedagogical and social dimensions of the Aldine publishing venture and, I hope, prompt new insights. Specifically, in this paper I consider Aldus’s plan to print all the great works of classical antiquity as part of his larger intellectual, educational, and, to some extent, civic mission to create an enlightened, independent-thinking, and more ethical society through the study of classical literature—Ancient Greek texts in particular. To what extent, I ask, did Aldus’s expansive publishing and educational project contribute to the formation and growth of a transnational literary public discourse? Drawing from Habermas’s (1991) theory of “the public sphere” (specifically in its recent reformulation by Michael Warner [2002]), I seek to investigate how the Aldine editions—particularly the prefatory letters that introduced them to the reader—played a key role in the emergence of a proto-form of public sphere, beyond the private familial networks and local patronage circles.

Positioning Habermas’s Theory of the Public Sphere: A Premise

In a frequently quoted article from 1964, social theorist Jürgen Habermas defines the concept of the public sphere as “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed [and where] access is guaranteed to all citizens” (Habermas, Lennox, and Lennox 1974, 49). As an organized space of rational–critical debate existing outside state authority, the public is formed in every exchange when private individuals gather together and express their opinions on matters of general concern. The formation of such a public body demands that individuals sacrifice their particular interests in pursuit of a greater common good. Thus, in Habermas’s formulation, the public sphere emerges as a critical social space of accountability in which state authorities are subject to citizen control through institutionalized forms of public discourse. In its ideal incarnation, therefore, the Habermasian public sphere constitutes a vital tool of democratic societies.

As political theorist Dana Villa rightly notes, Habermas’s concept of the public sphere (in German, Öffentlichkeit) has a distinctively modern connotation, specifically associated with the rise of a new kind of civil society in eighteenth-century Germany when the term Öffentlichkeit first appeared (2008, 176). Given this historical specificity, the adaptation of Habermas’s conceptual model to the cultural and socio-economic context of sixteenth-century Venice poses a number of problems. The first, and most apparent, is the risk of anachronism. Is it legitimate to adopt a framework so tightly connected with modern conceptualizations of state and society to analyze a foundational and uniquely complex moment in history—such as the large-scale production and dissemination of books in Renaissance Europe?

The second risk derives from the idealist and, according to several scholars, dangerously exclusionary assumptions underpinning Habermas’s definition.1 If the public sphere is a unitary, comprehensive social realm where only certain discussions (those around issues of common concern) and certain groups (those who had access to such sites of deliberation) are welcome, then there is no room for alternative or competing views or voices. In other words, the ideally inclusive and universally accessible public sphere envisioned by Habermas, when translated into reality, is at risk of perpetuating exclusionary discursive practices designed to keep subordinate groups—what Nancy Fraser calls “subaltern counterpublics”—at the margins of dominant discourse (1990, 63).

The final concern is terminological. The very expression public sphere in the original language carries a semantic ambiguity that the English translation elides, to the point that Habermas’s translator Thomas Burger feels compelled to add an explanatory note. Burger clarifies that the German word Öffentlichkeit, which gives title to the book, “may be rendered variously as ‘(the) public,’ ‘public sphere’, or ‘publicity,’” depending on the context of occurrence (Habermas 1991, xv). The semantic and conceptual gap between the two languages, therefore, further complicates the validity of choosing this theoretical framework.

What is the benefit, then? As I argue in this paper, for all its limitations, Habermas’s theory of the public sphere is both flexible and specific enough to provide a fruitful conceptual foundation for exploring a vastly complex phenomenon—the emergence of a transnational economy of learning through the humanist revival of classical antiquity—encompassing a range of dimensions: cultural, literary, social, and commercial.2 What follows is an attempt to illustrate how the printing press contributed to the creation, growth, and circulation of new proto-forms of public discourse separate (albeit not entirely independent) from governmental and ecclesiastical authorities. Given the vast scope of this topic and the wealth of complexities and mysteries it entails, this paper will focus on the printing endeavour of educator-turned-publisher Aldus Manutius and its central role within a growing network of intellectual circles or, quoting Habermas, “public spheres in the world of letters,” which greatly contributed to the advancement of humanist learning and values in Renaissance Europe (1991, 51).3

In this paper, I endeavour to understand how the new medium of print, with its potential for mass circulation, enabled the development of a networked knowledge project formed around the humanistic ideal of social improvement through classical education and—at least to some extent—consolidated through horizontal ties among like-minded peers. These groups of enthusiastic scholars and academicians—for the most part already “leading figures in equally influential circles in their own countries”—found in Aldus’s printing enterprise an essential fuel for their dreams of social enlightenment through classical learning (Lowry 1979, 259). At the same time, Aldus found through these connections a vital source of scholarly support in the form of knowledge, expertise, and skills, and also in the supply of precious source materials that would otherwise have been lost. So, in this respect, we might see a certain reciprocity at work in this web of relations and exchanges, although we should resist the temptation to interpret them as part of a balanced and streamlined process.

How did Aldus, then, by contributing to and benefitting from a similar collective system of knowledge, manage to turn his firm into “one of the most important cultural arteries [connecting] Renaissance Italy to Renaissance Europe”? (Lowry 1979, 259). In the following sections, I approach this question from a twofold perspective. First, I consider the quality and disposition of Aldus the scholar and schoolmaster, and his distinctive ability to mobilize around his printshop a rich and expansive arsenal of intellectual tools and resources. Secondly, I examine the material traces of this networked cultural enterprise: the books themselves (in particular, those printed during Aldus’s lifetime [ca. 1495–1515]), with an emphasis on the Aldine prefaces both as innovative publishing devices for addressing a wider readership and, significantly, as open-ended, public-oriented spaces of civic and ethical debate. Given that not every reader may be familiar with the history of the Aldine Press, it may be useful at this point to preface my analysis with a brief overview of the historical and cultural milieu in which the Aldine Press operated in its early years of activity.

Aldus Manutius: Teacher by Vocation, Publisher by Design

At the end of the fifteenth century, when Aldus moved to Venice to set up his printing shop, he was already in his forties and—at least by the standards of his day—a senior citizen. In Italy and beyond, he had succeeded in making a name for himself as a renowned scholar of humanae litterae, becoming a full-fledged member of the leading humanist circles of the time. Scholars have often speculated on the reasons why Aldus, who had already gained all the respect and financial stability that a man in his position could hope to achieve, decided to abandon his career as a teacher to embark on a business as risky and competitive as printing was at the time. The circumstantial evidence at our disposal (mainly from correspondence, official documents, and the prefatory materials to the Aldine editions), while not definitive, is sufficient to allow reasonable speculation. Aldus devoted himself to printing in order to address the gap he identified in the humanist educational system: what he calls a “surprising shortage” of Greek books to support the needs of older and, more importantly, younger generations of learners (2016, 13).

As a rare combination of entrepreneurial spirit, financial and technical capital, multilingualism, and high literacy, the Venetian Republic provided Aldus with the most advantageous conditions for the wide dissemination of classical knowledge. Even though, as recent scholarship has demonstrated (Della Rocca de Candal 2020), Aldus was not the first to engage with the printing of Greek texts on the Italian peninsula and, therefore, his stature in the early world of printing should be placed into perspective, his contribution to the establishment of the classical canon remains unparalleled. In this sense, Aldus’s later career as a publisher and his earlier longstanding commitment to education should be regarded as a continuum (Harris 2016, 353–54).

Imaginary Publics in Aldus’s Prefaces

In Italy, the first modern use of the preface as instructional supplementary material in printed publications can be traced back to the humanist Giovanni Andrea Bussi (1417–75), bishop of Aleria and chief editor for the Roman imprint of Sweynheym and Pannartz. These short paratexts, usually placed at the beginning or at the end of a printed work, contained useful information about the text and the author, often offering a snapshot of the painstaking editorial labour that went into the preparation of the manuscript before printing. However, as social historian Tiziana Plebani observes, if Bussi can be credited with having opened up a new shared space with the reader, his prefaces are to be understood primarily as a field of philological controversy, often involving personal invectives directed at small circles of specialists (editors and correctors) rather than non-expert readers (2016, 138–39). It is likely that Aldus consciously adopted Bussi’s model for his prefaces but, as Aldus did with other conventions inherited from earlier traditions, he adapted it to create something new. In his prefaces, written in epistolary form, Aldus addresses the reader in a direct and friendly fashion, purging the text of the belligerent and venomous tones used by his predecessors. The approachable, persuasive, and at times quasi-intimate style of Aldus’s prefatory letters to his ideal readership—the “nobili giovani e studiosi di buone lettere” (“honorable youths and students of literature”)—was more than a formulaic captatio benevolentiae devised by a money-oriented publisher to ingratiate himself with the customers (140). Rather, it was a stratagem to establish a mutually beneficial alliance with existing and new publics in whose hands lay the industrial destiny of the press. This mode of publisher–reader relationship established in the Aldine paratext can be understood as a kind of do ut des (“I give so that you will give”) contract: in exchange for the financial support needed to keep his business profitable, Aldus promised to place in the hands of his readers a uniquely valuable product. In this context, it might be useful to expand this notion to include another dimension: one that considers Aldus’s prefaces as a form of culturally mediated public discourse.4

It is important at this point to clarify what I mean by public and, to do so, I will freely borrow from Michael Warner’s compelling revisitation of Habermas’s theory of the public sphere. In his essay “Publics and Counterpublics” (2002), Warner identifies seven ways through which a public is constituted in our modern society. Some of these interpretative lenses are particularly helpful for investigating the social implications of the Aldine paratext. I will focus specifically on the following claims made by Warner: (1) a public is a relation among strangers, (2) the address of public speech is both personal and impersonal, (3) a public is constituted through mere attention, and (4) a public is poetic world-making. Warner starts by clarifying the distinction, and interdependence, between the notion of a public as an implied rhetorical addressee and the public as “a targeted public of circulation”—that is, the real, empirical public (54). He develops this notion further by articulating another definition: to be understood as such, a public “must be more than a list of one’s friends. It must include strangers” (55). In other words, a public address must always be oriented towards strangers. As a corollary of this quality of “stranger-relationality,” according to Warner, a public address must be both personal and impersonal, that is, in a public discourse we must recognize the addressee as both ourselves and an unknown group of indefinite others (57–58).

From One to Many: The Public Dimension of Aldus’s Paratextual Discourse

The preface to Lucretius’s philosophical poem De rerum natura (1515), the last book published by Aldus before his death, provides a useful case for testing Warner’s claims. In the dedicatory letter addressed to his patron and former pupil Alberto Pio, prince of Carpi, Aldus briefly explains his decision to publish the highly controversial poem, despite openly disapproving of the philosopher’s atheist views. The note that follows Aldus’s apologetic premise is of particular interest in this context:

We have broached this matter so that if anyone reading these remarks of ours does not know of the mad ravings of Lucretius he will learn of this from us, even though we appear to be writing to you alone. For this is the nature of epistles such as this one: although they are addressed to one individual, they are really written for all who come into possession of the works, like arguments addressed to a jury. (2017, 167; emphasis mine)

Even when addressed to an empirical reader, even when the “real addressee” was not just a scholarly acquaintance but someone with whom Aldus had formed a solid and lasting bond (his student Alberto Pio), the letter-preface transcends the familiar, the personal, and the private to reorient the discourse towards the strange and unknown and, ultimately, the public. As Warner observes, “where otherwise strangers need to be placed on a path to commonality, in modern forms strangerhood is the necessary medium of commonality” (2002, 57). The very choice of publishing a potentially contentious text such as De rerum natura should be regarded as a public-oriented, forward-thinking move on Aldus’s part: an indication that, in his ambitious publishing program, the humanist ideal of social reform through the study of the classical bonae litterae and the core beliefs of the Christian faith were not mutually exclusive but could coexist (Vacalebre 2022).

Importantly, by explicitly addressing a plurality of (present and future) readers, Aldus acknowledges the role of the reader(s) in the interpretation and transmission of the works of the past. For, if Lucretius was deemed by the ancients “a very great philosopher,” even though, according to Aldus, his ideas were “full of lies,” the final judgement ultimately rested with the reader and their own ability to engage with the text, critically and independently (2017, 167). The private, confidential tone of Aldus’s address (for example, the reference to his precarious health) takes on a public quality the moment he directly invites the reader to deliberate on issues of religious, moral, and political relevance (such as those covered in Lucretius’s work).

The Aldine Preface as “Scene of Active Participation”

Aldus’s innovative use of the preface as a means of reaching a wider public is consistent with his editorial practice of stripping from the classical texts the corrupting interpolations of medieval commentaries in an effort to recover and preserve the integrity of the original. This practice, as we know, was informed by the humanist belief that classical texts “could speak for themselves without the intervention of commentary,” with an awareness that such texts “would attract a new kind of reader, whose literacy was not circumscribed by the monastery or university” (Summit 2008, 73).

During the early stage of his printing career, Aldus addresses a significant number of his prefaces to students—variously qualified as studiosis omnibus (“all students”), or adolescentibus studiosis (“young students”), or otherwise more generally as studiosis (“students”)—and to a general reader, in most instances addressed in the singular form lectoris.5 In these prefatory texts, the imaginary student or reader emerges as an active, attentive participant in the pedagogical project envisioned by Aldus. If, as Warner claims, “a public is constituted through mere attention,” it is not farfetched to assert that the Aldine paratext relies entirely on the reader’s attentive and active engagement (2002, 60). This view is better understood if we consider the context of Aldus’s initial publishing program, focused on the publication of Ancient Greek texts. It is fitting to note here, as emphasized by Neil Harris (2016, 352), that the early catalogue of the Aldine Press had a strong pedagogical focus, starting from the first dated publication, Lascaris’s Greek grammar (Erotemata, 1494–95). Aldus’s primary concern, especially at the beginning of his venture, was not limited to printing all the best books of the classical tradition; he wanted to offer his readers the necessary tools to access the books that he deemed essential to learning in their original language.

Another example is the preface to Aesop’s Fables, which comes with a set of instructions on how to consult the bilingual index in Greek and Latin. Early in the text, Aldus reassures the reader that the Latin pages facing the Greek could be easily removed for the convenience of the more advanced learners. It is interesting to note that, while delivering these study instructions, Aldus, in a defensive albeit honest gesture, acknowledges the limits of the new technology in meeting the different learning needs of students, saying simply that “there was no other way to do it” (2016, 193). The frustrations arising from the challenges of a new or unfamiliar technology will likely resonate with many digital humanities practitioners adapting to (or struggling with) the latest digital tool. There is also the idea of failure as both inevitable and integral to learning, which, as Shawn Graham reminds us in his thought-provoking Failing Gloriously and other Essays, “is at least as old as Greco-Roman antiquity,” dating back to Propertius (2019, 2). It seems ironically fitting that the first Aldine edition of Propertius, which Aldus published along with the works of Catullus and Tibullus in 1502, carries a glaring typographical error on the initial title page: PROPETIVS.6 By openly recognizing the limitations of the new medium (and, hence, the humans behind it) and encouraging students’ active participation in their own learning, Aldus reminds us of the importance of transparency, accountability, and, importantly, a flexible learning environment in which teachers and learners are co-creators of knowledge. Such cultural values mattered to Aldus centuries ago, and they matter even more today, speaking directly to the varied interdisciplinary communities engaged in open social scholarship.

Public Now, Public Then

The terms public, public sphere, and public discourse invoke modern notions of state, democracy, civil society, and active citizenship. In order to avoid committing the epistemological fallacy of anachronism, it is important to bear in mind that in Aldus’s time there was no such thing as a democracy. During the Renaissance, education was a privilege of the ruling (male-dominated) elite, and Aldus’s students were, de facto, “the children of the rich and very rich” (Harris 2016, 353). Even though we might reasonably argue that Aldus firmly believed in the possibility of bettering one’s economic, social, and moral status through education, it is unlikely that “he had any acquaintance with the culture of the piazza or the wine-shop” (Lowry 1979, 303). Yet this in no way diminishes the magnitude of his achievements or tarnishes his legacy. On the contrary, a historical lens helps evaluate Aldus’s stature and contributions with a greater and deeper awareness. A thorough and nuanced discussion of the emergence of the public sphere in Renaissance Europe, therefore, requires both a high level of historical specificity and a critical perspective, if we are to avoid enabling idealized and nostalgic versions of the past, and replicating overly simplistic, homogenous views of the public discourse(s)such as in Habermas’s formulation in today’s multicultural, transnational societies.

Aldus’s “Poetic World-making”

. . . I do not regret my great efforts, which I have now performed for many years in editing good authors for your sake and for that of literary studies. . . . If I can produce something more important, as I hope, you will certainly be delighted, but posterity will be the greater beneficiaries; for myself, “with my head I shall touch the stars.”

– Aldus Manutius 1507 (2016, 301)

Warner’s last definition of public discourse deals with its inherent ability to imagine, with a certain vividness, the details of its future circulation. “Public discourse says not only: ‘Let a public exist,’ but: ‘Let it have this character, speak this way, see the world in this way’” (Warner 2002, 82). In other words, the existence (and success) of a public depends on how convincingly its imaginary interlocutors are portrayed; without such characterization, the participants in the public discourse would not be able to recognize themselves as the addressee and, hence, the very conditions of its existence would cease to be. This imaginary dimension of publics as virtual projections provides a useful framework to briefly discuss a rather elusive aspect of the Aldine phenomenon—one that, in my opinion, opens new avenues of inquiry. This perspective suggests an understanding of Aldus’s cultural and educational project as a kind of social imaginary that, while depending on a network of complex relations (private and public), also builds on the well-defined vision—the ability to see beyond the present, to imagine the future—of a single individual.

It is important to bear in mind that part of this vision was formed (and enlivened) by failure as much as victory. The impressive success story of the Aldine Press during Aldus’s lifetime is a path paved with loss, disappointment, and struggle. Aldus’s dream of the “New Academy” (Neakademia in Greek), a distinguished community bringing together the finest Hellenists of the time, never came to fruition. More than one publication project was abandoned halfway, if not from the start; more than one manuscript was lost on the long journey to the Aldine workshop. These difficulties and tensions should be viewed not as paralyzing obstacles but rather as integral to the press’s success and Aldus’s own future-oriented vision of a new, more ethical society.

I offer a final, but in no way conclusive, remark on the nature and orientation of the public discourse in Aldus’s prefaces. Prior to becoming a publisher, Aldus was a schoolmaster and several of his prefatory letters are addressed to a broad, young public. From my perspective, Aldus’s goal of improving the quality of learning and teaching through the production and diffusion of more effective and accurate educational resources is to be understood as part of a more significant civic reform, aimed at improving society at large. In this sense, my analysis of the Aldine paratextual discourse fits well into the broader, urgent conversations concerning the role and impact of technology in the civic engagement of young people that are happening within the open social scholarship movement.7


Bennett, W. Lance, ed. 2007. Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Della Rocca de Candal, Geri. 2020. “Printing in Greek before Aldus Manutius.” In Printing R-Evolution and Society 1450-1500. Fifty Years that Changed Europe, edited by Cristina Dondi, 279–97. Venice: Edizioni Ca’ Foscari.

Fletcher, Henry George. 1988. New Aldine Studies: Documentary Essays on the Life and Works of Aldus Manutius. San Francisco: Bernard M. Rosenthal.

Fraser, Nancy. 1990. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26: 56–80.

Graham, Shawn. 2019. Failing Gloriously and Other Essays. With a foreword by Eric C. Kansa and an afterword by Neha Gupta. Grand Forks, ND: The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Habermas, Jürgen. (1989) 1991. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen, Sara Lennox, and Frank Lennox. 1974. “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964).” New German Critique, 3: 49–55.

Harris, Neil. 2016. “Aldus and the Making of the Myth (Or What Did Aldus Really Do?).” In Aldo Manuzio. La costruzione del mito, 346–85. Venice: Marsilio.

Lowry, Martin J. C. 1979. The World of Aldus Manutius. Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Manutius, Aldus. 2016. The Greek Classics. Translated and edited by N.G. Wilson. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 2017. Humanism and the Latin Classics. Translated and edited by John N. Grant. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Manuzio, Aldo. 2015. La voce dell’editore: prefazioni e dediche. Venice: Marsilio.

Nuovo, Angela. 2013. The Book Trade in the Italian Renaissance. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Plebani, Tiziana. 2016. “Aldo Manuzio e il patto con i lettori.” In Aldo al lettore: viaggio intorno al mondo del libro in occasione del V Centenario della morte di Aldo Manuzio, 132–50. Milano: Edizioni Unicopli.

Summit, Jennifer. 2008. Memory’s Library Medieval Books in Early Modern England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vacalebre, Natale. 2022. “Pax Aldina. Aldo Manuzio e libri come ponti di pace.” Public talk, Aldus Club, (Milan/online).

Villa, Dana. 2008. Public Freedom. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Warner, Michael. 2002. “Publics and Counterpublics.” Public Culture 14 (1): 49–90.

  1. See, in particular, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian (1972), and Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy” (1990). 

  2. I am indebted to John Willinsky for this notion; see, in particular, The Intellectual Properties of Learning: A Prehistory from Saint Jerome to John Locke (2017, 197). 

  3. The term literarische Öffentlichkeit has been rendered in the English translation of Structural Transformation as “literary public sphere” or “public sphere in the world of letters” (Habermas 1991). 

  4. The references from Aldus’s prefaces are taken from: Aldo Manuzio, La voce dell’editore: prefazioni e dediche (2015), 28; and, The Greek Classics (2016), 7. 

  5. For a detailed analysis of Aldus’s prefaces, see Tiziana Plebani, “Aldo Manuzio e il patto con i lettori,” in Aldo al lettore, 134–150. 

  6. See Unsurprisingly, given Aldus’s single-minded commitment to quality, the error was promptly amended, as shown in the second title page of the copy held at Simon Fraser University Library. For more details of the first Aldine edition of Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, see Fletcher, New Aldine Studies (1988), 100–06. 

  7. See, for example, the collection of essays, edited by W. Lance Bennett, Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth (2007).